To commemorate the 400th anniversary of the publication of the King James Version of the Bible in English, Melvyn Bragg (a man not noted for his reliability on such matters—see my post for March 30th last year) managed to get himself a BBC documentary on the subject. (King James’ Bible: The Book that Changed the World) The credits say that he wrote it as well as narrated it, so all errors are his own, with the possible exception of the director’s decision to devote so much of the hour to close shots of Bragg’s face as he muses on his subject. This is always an error, even when the narrator is photogenic. Bragg, reading from his autocue, is an old man with distractingly young hair and a gaze point somewhere just above the viewer’s right eyebrow.
But I digress. The real point of this post is to unpick the bizarre thesis of the programme, namely that the true power of the Bible lay dormant for centuries until it was translated into English in 1611 by a committee of scholars working for King James. Yes, I am simplifying here somewhat, but that is because the lines of argument taken by Bragg are meandering and self-contradictory. Nevertheless¸ the main idea is that God’s word was inevitably muffled until it was made available to humanity through the sparkling medium of early Modern English, whereupon its effect was electric and immediate, inspiring democratic revolutions, civil rights and all of modern science.
The idea that language influences the way you are able to think is known as linguistic relativism. It is expressed most famously in the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis which holds that, for example, the colour terms in your language influence how you see colour, the number terms influence the way you conceptualise quantity, the verb tenses influence the way you understand time, and so on. This idea, at least in its strongest form (that language actually controls thought) does not have much currency in modern Linguistics. True, there are bits of evidence here and there which seem to show that people are likely to think in particular ways because of their mother tongue, but generally speaking there is nothing that a bit of prompted awareness and paraphrasing can’t overcome.
So, how about the idea that Biblical texts, trapped for generations in Hebrew, Aramaic, Koine Greek and vulgate Latin, were not able to convey the true force of their message, even when they were read by people for whom these languages were their own mother tongues? After all, these early readers of the Bible did not cry freedom and throw off the chains of ancient oppressors. They did not abolish slavery. They did not institute the idea of equality before the law. They did not start programmes of scientific enquiry. But the English, according to Bragg, once they had got the Bible into their own tongue, grasped its message at once and started political and scientific revolutions which changed the face of the world forever.
Bragg believes that the Word of God in English was utterly transformational. And yet, there is a problem with such a thesis. When the King James Bible was published in 1611, the English were already very familiar with the Bible in their own language. Even before the 13th century, many parts of the Latin Bible had been translated, and in the 14th century the whole thing was rendered into English by John Wycliffe . Many thousands of copies of this translation were in circulation but this inconvenient detail does not merit attention in Bragg’s documentary. He does mention William Tyndale who in the early 16th century had made another illegal translation of much of the Bible, for which crime he was strangled and burnt at the stake. Bragg never mentions Tyndale again. He ignores Myles Coverdale completely who made an officially sanctioned Bible translation in 1538, basing it largely on Tyndale’s text. Bragg skates over the Geneva Bible of 1560 which was the next important translation and widely read throughout England. This was the Bible known to Shakespeare and to the early settlers in the American colonies. Again, it was largely based on Tyndale’s text. In 1572 came another official translation, the unloved Bishops’ Bible, which failed to replace the Geneva Bible as the household favourite. None of this gets a passing mention by Bragg. His programme suggests the King James Version in 1611 was a spectacular new translation that took the country by storm, even though this too was largely based on Tyndale’s text, with the committee of translator-scholars paying close attention to doctrinal nuances rather than chucking it all out and starting afresh. So when the great work was done, people reading and listening to their new Bible would have recognised it at once as a familiar friend. There was nothing remotely revolutionary about it, and its language was already archaic.
Perhaps the heart of the problem in this programme is that Bragg is never clear in his own mind whether he is talking about Christianity, the Bible in English, or the King James version of the Bible in English. The three are hopelessly entangled in his narration. During the course of this documentary Bragg refers to the King James Bible as:
The seedbed of western democracy;
The maker of the western world;
The shaper of the English speaking world;
An influential strand in the development of democracy;
The navigational compass when history changed direction with the American Declaration of Independence;
The instigator of the anti-slavery campaign;
The basis for the Civil Rights movement in the USA in the 1960s.
You might see the Christian message of love and peace as the mover and shaker for some of these things, or you might see the availability of the Christian message in the vernacular to the masses as the instigator of social justice, but it is very difficult to pin all this onto one particular translation of the Bible unless, as I said at the beginning, you invoke the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis to explain why Christians didn’t get going on these radical projects around one thousand five hundred and eleven years before 1611. Because Bragg repeatedly says it was the King James Bible and not any earlier Bible in English which kicked everything off, we need a really strict version of the Hypothesis to explain its amazing effect, especially when you consider that the King James Bible is the Geneva Bible and Coverdale’s Bible and these are both pretty much Tyndale’s. Bragg’s confusion is summed up perfectly in his assertion that Martin Luther King’s Civil Rights movement was ‘earthed and birthed in the message of the King James Bible.’ For this we can read ‘in the message of Christianity’ or ‘in the message of the Bible’, and have a much more plausible argument than one that suggests only the King James Bible could have been this inspirational.
There is one last silliness in this programme which I must mention. Bragg claims that Newton was inspired by the King James Bible to seek after the ‘First Cause’ of Creation and that this lead to his seminal work on the laws of nature which in turn led to other major empirical advances in science in the 18th , 19th and 20th centuries right up to the CERN project, the Hadron-Collider and Higgs boson particle. There. All because the King James Committee got the wording right. Amazing.
This was a tedious and preposterous vanity project in which Bragg says out loud a large number of baseless assertions which no serious scholar would ever countenance. Indeed he has no scholars sharing the screen with him to lend weight to his thesis, probably because any serious scholar would point out that powerful social and economic factors were vastly more influential than the King James Bible in creating the modern West, and that people all over seventeenth century Europe with no knowledge of English at all were nevertheless hatching the revolutionary and inspirational ideas that would transform the world. And at no point does Bragg do the kind of close-textual analysis you would need to support the idea that a text in one language is more potent than the same text in another. At the end one is driven to the conclusion that much of this documentary was made for the kind of American audience that never tires of hearing how special their country is, how important their revolution, how unique their devotion to freedom and democracy. No wonder then that for a good half of the programme Bragg is filmed wandering around the US and gazing upon such American icons as the Liberty Bell in Philadelphia. When he gets to visit an old church in which African slaves were comforted by the King James Bible, he fails entirely to note the irony of the situation.